WASHINGTON — The race is on.
Self-driving cars have moved off the pages of science fiction novels and onto American streets, and government officials around the country are chasing behind, wondering who should take the wheel to regulate the new technology.
The car companies would like the federal government to adopt nationwide regulations so they could avoid dealing with a patchwork of state rules.
Hawaii is not among the leaders in trying to regulate self-driving cars. State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz introduced legislation in 2015 and 2016, as Senate Bill 630 both years, but the measure died and has not been re-introduced this year.
Hawaii’s David Ige was among the governors who got an update on the issue recently from the new secretary of transportation.
Ige, who is in Washington for a National Governors Association gathering and to meet with federal officials, told Civil Beat that many questions remain unresolved about the technology, but he sees it as a promising area for economic development and job creation.
Ige would like some of the tech companies — he’s thinking Google or Apple — that are developing autonomous cars to consider opening operations in Hawaii.
“I want to argue that Hawaii is the perfect pilot laboratory to some extent, because we are isolated,” Ige said. “We can be a laboratory for autonomous vehicles.”
Automated cars will begin rolling off production lines within a few years. Ford and Volvo say they will have them available for sale by 2021. Anders Karrberg, vice president of government affairs for Volvo, told Congress he expects universal access within 15 years.
“Wow, this is happening much more quickly than we anticipated,” said Nicole DuPuis, an urban innovation expert at the National League of Cities. “We are trying to help people prepare for this pretty momentous change in transportation.”
She called what is happening a “paradigm shift” that is causing everyone to think differently about urban planning, land use, transportation and vehicle safety.
General Motors, which has formed a partnership with Lyft, is operating self-driving cars in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco and Detroit. Google’s self-driving car company, which was renamed Waymo in December, is testing autonomous cars in Kirkland, Washington; Mountain View, California; Phoenix and Austin, Texas. Uber is testing its cars in Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona. Tesla is testing cars on public roads in California.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has designated 10 proving grounds to serve as research centers and compile information about autonomous vehicles. More than 60 organizations applied for the designations. The winners include sites in Pittsburgh; Texas; Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland; the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Michigan; Contra Costa Transportation Authority; San Diego Association of Governments; Iowa City, Iowa; University of Wisconsin, Madison; Central Florida and North Carolina Turnpike Authority.
Transportation experts say we are at the forefront of a sweeping technological change that will transform the way we commute, socialize, get to work and school, handle our errands and even how we vacation. Autonomous vehicles will use internet-based computer technology, while passengers ride in comfort attending to things they would prefer to be doing rather than watching the road.
There is much about this coming phenomenon that is unknown. But here’s what we know now:
Some lives will be saved by the new technology as fewer drunk drivers get behind the wheel. Some lives will be lost because of unforeseen glitches within the machines that operate the vehicles.
Some jobs will be gained, as manufacturers roll out production of the new cars and car dealers sell them to the public. Many jobs will be lost because there will be a reduced need for workers in the transportation industry, such as cabbies, truck drivers and even school bus drivers.
For years we will have cars with a mixture of capabilities on the roads simultaneously. Some cars will be fully automated, some will have various degrees of automation and some will be driven as they are today, with human drivers.
The average car on the road is 11.5 years old, so some vehicles will be state of the art and others will be antiquated. Some cars will be prone to being hacked, either for fun or malicious intent, and some consumers will feel their privacy has been violated.
Big changes pose big questions, and first among them now is who should regulate the new technology. Traditionally, states have set rules for drivers to make sure they drive safely and are insured against the dangers and damages they cause other drivers and pedestrians. The federal government, meanwhile, sets rules for car safety. But as developments in autonomous vehicle technology sprang ahead, federal guidelines have lagged behind.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urged the governors to press residents in their states to overcome their “angst and anxiety.”
In September, under the Obama administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration produced a report suggesting voluntary guidelines for companies to follow and for communities to consider. It defined six levels of automation:
Level 0 indicating the driver does everything; Level 1, where automated systems assist drivers in some ways; Level 2, where the car actually begins to take on specific tasks; Level 3, where the car both acts on and monitors driving conditions; Level 4, where the car can drive itself and monitor driving conditions, under some limited conditions; and Level 5, where the car can perform all the tasks a driver would normally perform.
The Trump administration is reviewing those guidelines now, according to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who told the National Governors Association that officials are questioning whether the guidelines “strike the right balance.”
Chao urged the governors to press residents in their states to overcome their “angst and anxiety” and instead “help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology.”
While these federal reviews proceed, some states are trying to be proactive, worried about public safety, insurance liability and the potential and unforeseen consequences of rapid adoption of the new technology. Others want to encourage manufacturers to open plants within their borders to make or test the new vehicles.
Dozens of states have experimented with a variety of proposals.
States “want to make sure the cars are properly permitted and properly insured,” said Catherine Sandoval, a law professor at Santa Clara University and former California Public Utilities Commission member. “This is an issue that has historically been left to the states … You are putting cars on the roads that weigh thousands of pounds and then just saying, ‘Go.’”
The National Governors Association, meanwhile, is separately drafting guidelines that will help states decide which departments should oversee the new vehicles, how best to collaborate with the federal government in regulating them, and how to go about luring these new operations to individual states.
But the automakers, car-parts manufacturers and transportation network companies that are developing the technology and anticipate making big profits off their investments want to quash state regulation, which they say could create a maze of standards that could hinder innovation. They prefer to be regulated by the federal government, now controlled by business-friendly Republicans. They made a coordinated presentation to Congress during a Feb. 14 hearing.
“The worst possible scenario for the growth of autonomous vehicles is an inconsistent and conflicting patchwork of state, local, municipal and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring AV technology to market,” said Joseph Okpaku, vice president of government relations for Lyft. “This scenario is well on its way to becoming reality.”
In some cases, states that introduce new safety protocols or requirements have lost out to states that promise looser regulation. When Uber was told it would need to register to test autonomous vehicles in California, the transportation company decided to set up testing operations instead in Arizona. Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who was previously chief executive officer of the Cold Stone Creamery chain of ice cream stores, exuberantly welcomed them, saying that Arizona had a friendlier business climate than California.
Similarly, in testimony at the congressional hearing, Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, said that the company had decided to test its systems on public roads in Michigan, which he said had implemented a “very supportive regulatory framework,” instead of California or Massachusetts, which he said had implemented a “more restrictive regulatory framework.”
Pratt told Congress that he realized that vehicle safety performance standards have typically been governed by states, and that because the federal government has not offered “clear or certain direction,” some states are trying to fill the void. He said those efforts are counterproductive.
“We firmly believe that the establishment of vehicle performance standards for autonomous vehicle technology should take place at the national level,” he testified.
Moreover, according to Nidhi Kalra of RAND Corp., it is more dangerous to wait until autonomous vehicles operate “nearly perfectly” because in the meantime human drivers remain behind the wheel, which she called a “needless perpetuation of the risks” caused by their poor driving.
“An argument can be made that autonomous vehicles could be allowed even when they are not as safe as average human drivers if developers can use early deployment as a way to rapidly improve vehicle safety,” she told Congress.
Two very different views about the likely impact of the transformation are emerging.
Enthusiasts imagine a world of fewer cars, fewer parking garages, fewer fatal car accidents, less traffic congestion and better mobility for people with disabilities, the elderly or others who are not permitted to drive.
Industry advocates expect people to willingly commute in shared vehicles to reduce costs. They see parking garages as becoming a thing of the past because riders will be able to send their cars home or away until they need them. They think highway fatalities — some 35,000 in 2015 — will plummet because most accidents are caused by human error or fatigue.
Hawaii, with its crowded urban areas, congested highways, high rate of pedestrian deaths and unusual environmental conditions, could be a state that wants its own regulations.
Skeptics imagine a world of even greater traffic jams as every person in a household requests his or her own personal vehicle, where zombie cars patrol the side streets aimlessly for hours, looking for parking quickly accessible to the owner’s workplace, and where senior citizens with dementia who would otherwise be safe at home wander around in their cars, unattended, falling prey to criminals and getting lost.
“There’s a utopian and a dystopian vision,” DuPuis said.
Nobody knows how society will adapt to the new technology.
Sandoval, the former California Public Utilities Commission member, said states need to decide how they want to handle these questions.
She said Hawaii, with its crowded urban areas, congested highways, high rate of pedestrian deaths and unusual environmental conditions, could be a state that wants its own regulations because of the potential risks of machines driving passengers into dangerous spots.
“Hawaii needs to make a decision,” she said. “You have active lava fields, right?”
Safety issues remain unresolved, and probing questions were directed at corporations making the machines at a Senate hearing in March 2016.
Michael Abelson, vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning of General Motors Co., touted his employer’s long record of interactions with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and told senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that GM was paying close attention to safety.
Abelson said federal regulation would impede the development of the market.
Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that executives from auto companies sat in front of senators “30 years ago, and said the same things about seat belts and air bags.”
Mary Louise Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics at Duke University, said that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration did not have enough technically qualified employees to oversee the rapidly evolving industry.
“There is no question that someone is going to die in this technology,” Cummings told the senators. “The question is when, and what we can do to minimize that. I think I speak for many people in the robotics industry when I say we are strong advocates of this technology but if a fatality were to happen soon it would set back the integration of this technology.”